Hello, cheese friends. As our readers may recall, part of the impetus behind Cheese + Champagne was my coauthor Jill’s move several years ago to Minnesota. We decided to keep in touch through our mutual love of cheese — while sharing our tasting notes with the world. Well, it’s Jill’s birthday today, and as we aren’t able to break bread around a cheese board together, I’m sending her a virtual toast: a festive sparkling Spanish sangria and local Firefly Farm‘s Merry Goat Round. That cute little round is the perfect cheese stand-in for a birthday cake, don’t you think? (And, just last week it was named 1st Runner Up for Best in Show at the American Dairy Goat Association 2010 cheese competition.)

This little blog will be celebrating a birthday of its own next month. While Jill and I have been busy tending to our little human kids, Kunik and Oma (no, not their real names), we’ve also been plotting behind the scenes to bring you all sorts of new cheese deliciousness. Stay tuned!

And in the meantime, tell us what cheese would you celebrate a birthday with?

P.S. Speaking of celebrations, Thursday, October 28, is Champagne Day. There will be tastings at Alexandria’s Whole Foods here in VA, elsewhere follow the hashtag #Champagne on twitter to join in virtually.

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It frequently happens that when we mention the name of our blog, the person responds, “Oh, I love champagne!” And I think to myself, “huh, we should really write about champagne someday…” Of course, it goes without saying that champagne pairs perfectly with a wide range of cheeses, but the use of its name here on the blog was originally intended to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Yes, we occasionally eat cheese with something bubbly, but really, cheese is perfect any time of the day, whether with coffee, chocolate, wine or even beer. Obviously, our focus here has been on the first half of the equation.

But if ever there was a time that called for cheese with champagne, surely it’s New Year’s Eve. Here are some of our favorite cheese and bubbly pairings (note we’re equal opportunists here, just as likely to serve cava or prosecco as the French version):

  • Cava with drunken goat and Mahon Curado, and Spanish almonds and olives
  • Prosecco cocktails with pecorino, such as pecorino foglie de noce, and tallegio.
  • For the real thing, champagne, stick with gooey French cheeses like Chaource. A warm crock of St. Marcellin is just the gooey sort of comfort food needed on a chilly winter night (assuming you’re not celebrating New Year’s in the Caribbean).
  • Of course you can stick with domestic products too, like Virginia’s Thibaut-Janisson Brut de Chardonnay and Cypress Grove’s bubble-worthy Truffle Tremor.
  • Some of my favorite cheese-and-bubbly pairings are not with wine at all, but with beer. Like Allagash’s effervescent Belgian-style White Ale with Jasper Hill’s Winnimere.
  • And for little ones, or designated drivers, try sparkling pear cider with a good cheddar. We might suggest Cabot clothbound.

Personally, I’ve got St. Marcellin and olives in the fridge for tonight, and an Oregon-inspired cheddar cheese ball in mind for watching the Ducks in tomorrow’s Rose Bowl. Jill’s planning a dressed-up comfort food meal of truffled mac ‘n cheese.

What are you enjoying your New Year’s cheese with?

Garrotxa is a lovely blue-gray round of aged goats’ milk cheese from the Catalan region of Spain. It is mild, creamy yet flaky with a very subtle herbal flavor and mushroom aroma. It is similar in flavor to manchego, though without manchego’s oiliness. The paste is pure white, making it difficult to capture in its glamour shot!

Garrotxa is delightful on its own, and would be great shaved over a simple green salad or even pasta. Artisanal suggests pairing it with champagne, and of course it would go well with Spanish cava or tempranilla. Read more about the Catalan food scene at the Humble Gourmand.

I love a good manchego, but my recent go-to cheese for entertaining guests (particularly those with timid palates) is a Spanish Idiazabal.

 

Idiazabal con membrillo

Idiazabal con membrillo

A sheep’s milk cheese that is lightly smoked for 1o days, it is firm, oily (in a good way) and flavorful without being overpowering. It hails from the Basque region and Artisanal Cheese recommends pairing with a full-bodied red wine from Navarra, which, coincidentally, is a budget-friendly choice as well. Because I was tasting bargain bubblies, and served this before our Hanukkah dinner, I sampled it with the Tarantas cava which was fruity enough to bring out the subtle smoky, grassy flavor of the cheese.

 

My favorite chef Jose Andres includes a recipe for rosemary-marinated Idiazabal in his book Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America. I have not yet tried Lima here in D.C., but they include Idiazabal on their Spanish cheese plate.

We know budgets are tight these days, and gourmet cheeses can really make your grocery tab add up quickly. Here are a couple ways to incorporate cheese in your holiday feasts and still have enough money for the Hanukkah brisket, Christmas goose or whatever else is on your menu!

Pick a “showcase” cheese. Odds are you’re serving enough other food for people to fill up on, so you don’t really need to have multiple cheeses. Pick one high quality cheese, centered among spiced nuts and other accompaniments, and pair with a beverage, for a stand-out start or finish to the meal. Try Cypress Grove’s Truffle Tremor paired with a California sparkling wine for a first course, or a wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano and spiced hot cider for an after dinner treat.

Make cheese a star ingredient. Baked brie – with seasonal cranberry sauce or fig preserves – stretches your cheese dollars and is sure to please a crowd. Or try blue cheese-filled endives, topped with pomegranate seeds (a la Eric Ripert) for festive little bites of cheese.

Look for budget-friendly cheeses. You don’t have to get the most expensive triple-creme cheese from France to wow your family and friends. Look for heartier favorites like a Dutch gouda or aged Irish cheddar – or look for domestic brands, like Cabot/Jasper Hill (Vermont) or Carr Valley (Wisconsin). Tillamook‘s vintage white extra sharp cheddar (Oregon) is a budget-friendly family favorite. A mild, hard cheese like cheddar and gouda will hold up well to a variety of foods and beverages as part of the holiday meal.

Skip the Champagne. Perfectly palatable sparkling wines from California, Spanish cava, or Italian prosecco can be found for $15-30, and will delight your guests when paired with cheese treats. I love Tarantas organic cava ($12.99 at Whole Foods) and have used Trader Joe’s $6 prosecco in pomegranate cocktails that are perfect for Christmas. Sean of Vinifico! recommends Zonin Prosecco Brut NV ($14), and Washington Post wine columnist Dave McIntyre calls Scharffenberger Brut “America’s best bargain bubbly.” (See his blog for more bargain sparkling wine recommendations.)  

Hope your holidays are cheese-filled and merry!

spanish new years

Our New Year’s Eve Spanish sampler featured Gramona Gran Cuvee Cava (2003), two Spanish cheeses, drunken goat and mahon (cow’s milk aged in olive oil and paprika), lomo (cured pork), and roasted almonds. The Gramona is one of the few remaining family-owned estates producing cava in the Penedes region. Gramona cavas are aged significantly longer than most cavas, 30 months for the Gran Cuvee, producing a delightful, flavorful bubbly. The drunken goat is a semi-hard cheese aged in red wine (Doble Pasta) and is creamy and rich – make sure to let it sit at room temperature for at least one hour, preferably two. Mahon is a firmer, chewier cheese with a richness and lovely orange hue from the paprika. Salty lomo and almonds were perfect complements.